In Russia, October 30th is a day to remember the victims of the Great Terror under Stalin, and this year is the 75thanniversary of the beginning of that massive wave of repression and show trials, when millions of people were executed, exiled, or sentenced to prison camps if they were seen as “enemies of the people.” So there has been a lot in the Russian news lately about the historical and cultural importance of this Soviet leader.
If you don’t follow Russia, you might be surprised to learn that Stalin is still rather widely admired despite the suffering he caused. While some people acknowledge that there was serious repression under him, a shrinking percentage of Russians believes the Great Terror actually happened, according to the Public Opinion Foundation. In another recent survey of Russian citizens, the Levada Center found that people’s attitude toward Stalin and the Stalin era has improved significantly since the late 1990s. Since 1998, the percentage of Russians perceiving Stalin negatively has fallen from 60 to 22 percent. Currently, 48 percent see him and his role in the country’s history positively. Maybe they forget that he was Georgian and not Russian.
The positive attitude is largely due to the fact that the USSR was a victor in WWII. People say the country defeated the German army thanks to Stalin’s forced modernization and industrialization, which killed even more people through starvation. I would say it’s also true that the Red Army won in spite of him, because he had devastated the military and party leadership in his purges before the Nazis invaded.
In any case, the victory is still a source of pride, and that makes it harder for Russia to come to terms with the darker parts of its past. Opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov has said that Russia is unable so far to renounce Soviet crimes because WWII made it a super power (as part of the USSR), and that is an essential part of its national self-image. Questioning what happened under Stalin could bring down the good with the bad. It’s also hard to deal with the repression as a society because the line between good guys and bad guys wasn’t clear. And a few official attempts at “de-Stalinization” didn’t go anywhere, because the leaders who initiated the efforts had been part of the system they were denouncing, and it all threatened to become very messy.
For some Russians, Stalin looks good compared to today’s leadership, which they are disgusted with for various reasons. In a blog post entitled “Stalin Riot,” Elizabeth Aleksandrova-Zorina says the dictator inherited a peasant Russia and left it nuclear, while current leaders inherited a nuclear super power and have left it a “feudal village.” In her harsh commentary on Russian society today, she also criticizes the way people have turned the deaths of Stalin’s victims “into a show.” She says it’s easy to watch movies about this on tv and condemn the “horrors of Stalinism” while drinking one’s beer, but too many Russians now disregard the suffering of others, like the homeless and those who sell their organs as spare parts: “Stalin’s punishers squeezed the trigger with the same cold indifference.”
So why does the lingering presence of Stalin matter to anyone besides Russia buffs and historians? Because government critics warn that Russian history might be repeating itself. The human rights organization Memorial said on its website yesterday that “events of the past week show that, in their dialogue with the opposition, the Russian authorities intend to use the same language of repression: arrests, trials, and prison camps. Again, as in the 1920s and 1930s, experience in the fabrication of political processes is in demand. Again they are conjuring up ‘foreign agents.’ And even the fresh ‘Caucasian’ experience of kidnappings and secret prisons has proven to be in demand. Russia is again being pushed down its habitual and tragic path.”
This was in reference to a series of new laws restricting protest, “slander,” and the funding of NGOs, as well as a law passed today that broadens the definition of “treason.” Critics warn that these laws are vague and will be applied selectively to the Kremlin’s opponents (just as in Soviet times). Memorial was also referring to the government’s actions against Pussy Riot activists and protest leaders like Sergei Udaltsov, Alexei Navalny, and Leonid Razvozzhayev—who was allegedly abducted from Ukraine by Russian government agents in October.
Neither President Putin nor Prime Minister Medvedev attended the October 30th memorial services for the victims of political repression, but Medvedev was quoted as saying that “this must remain in the annals of our history, so that it never happens again. Because a war against one’s own people is a serious crime.” One newspaper reader asked, “isn’t that what our authorities are doing with the people?”